Highlighting the facts behind the fiction with Jude Knight on mourning in the Regency Era.
In the novella I am currently writing, my duchess is coming to terms with being a widow and, at the same time, losing her job. So I’ve been checking up on mourning customs.
As in so many things, we look at the Regency era through the lens of the Victorian—and, in this case, the second part of the reign of Queen Victoria, after the death of her husband. The Queen wore black for the rest of her life, and death and rules for proper mourning became something of a cultural obsession.
Even then, the stricter rules in the second half of the nineteenth century weren’t laws, though they had same force of social pressure as table etiquette or any other social norm.
In the Regency era of which I write, the social norms were somewhat more relaxed, and families and individuals had some flexibility for how they displayed their sorrow at the death.
Randolph Trumbach, writing about the eighteenth-century in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family, suggests the following mourning periods (they appear to have doubled in the Victorian era):
- 12 months for a husband or wife
- 6 months for parents or parents-in-law
- 3 months for a sister or brother, uncle or aunt.
Servants of the family that had suffered a loss would wear black bands on their sleeves (men) or black ribbons on their caps (women). Female family members would go into black gowns and wear mourning caps.
Most wealthy people had at least one black garment in their wardrobe in case of a death in the family or some national mourning occasion such as the loss of a battle or the death of a royal. The wealthy could, of course, go out and order something new. Those less plump in the pocket might need to make do with dyeing the garments they already had.
A widow like my duchess would wear black for the first six months of her mourning. While in full mourning, she wouldn’t attend large, formal entertainments or dance or go to frivolous plays. And not just black, but a dull black, in a fabric such as bombazine (a mix of wool and silk) or crape (a light silk) that did not reflect the light.
For the second half of the mourning period, white, black and white, grey, and even lavender were appropriate, and social engagements were no longer frowned upon, though dancing might still draw some comment.
For the full year, superfluous trimming and jewellery were frowned on. Indeed, Jet was the only appropriate substance for jewellery.
Men work black armbands, black gloves, and possibly black cravats.
Even the house wore black. The family would put up a hatchment or mourning wreath, and it would remain in place for up to a year, and the death was also marked by drawing the curtains, at least until after the funeral. A funerary hatchment was a depiction in a black lozenge shaped frame of the deceased person’s coat of arms, the crest of his family, and other heraldic devices that indicated the achievements of the deceased, such as regimental colours. After being displayed on the house for a year, it was usually transferred to the parish church.
The length of public and court mourning was notified to the Gazette. When Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, died in 1817, the court instructed everyone to go into mourning for an official period of two weeks. Henry Brougham wrote that it was nearly impossible to find black clot or ribbon in any of the shops across the country. The law courts and docks were closed. On the day of the funeral, even the gambling dens and brothels were closed.
Excerpt from Paradise At Last
Eleanor Haverford was bored. Bored, bored, bored. She was tired of wearing black; tired of dresses with minimal trim and accessories that repeated the dismal colour. She hated the unspoken rules that restricted the types of activity a widow might enjoy. She missed her friends and her usual social round.
She was tired of her own company. Two months ago, her secretary had married the local vicar. With many of Eleanor’s former tasks now in the hands of the new duchess and her other activities curtailed, she had not bothered to seek a replacement.
She despised the hypocrisy that expected her to make an outward show of mourning a cruel despot who had never shown her a particle of affection or consideration, and who would have consumed every vestige of her will and destroyed all her happiness if she had not found ways to manage him.
She would be honest with herself though she dissembled to the rest of the world. The feeling that currently ruled her life was grief, but not for her husband.
In six months, she had seen James once, in a crowd, when he came formally with his children and nieces to pay his respects in London after Haverford’s funeral. She mourned all the bright possibilities that she had refused to allow herself to consider before Haverford died—the ones that had sparkled in the periphery of her imagination despite her rigid determination not to dishonour her marriage even in thought.
She had not seen her son and his wife in nearly as long. They had accompanied the coffin to Haverford Castle, in the north east of Kent, for the interment in the family tomb, but then returned to London. Charlotte, the new duchess, had written to her mother-in-law. The new duke had not. “He has put on his father’s coldness with his father’s title,” she grumbled, but she knew it was not true. Anger, not indifference, prompted his silence. He had not forgiven her for trying to prevent his marriage.
Three months ago, Charlotte had invited Eleanor’s wards to join her and the duke in London. “The girls must be bored, and Haverford says that three months of mourning must be all Society can expect when the old duke never acknowledged their existence, let alone his part in it.”
Haverford. Hearing her son referred to by the hated name shook her every time.
Charlotte invited Eleanor to come with Jessica and Frances, but Eleanor had not felt ready to face the new duke or Ja— or others in London.
Eleanor had sent them off with her blessing, and now they, too, wrote to her, a letter each a week. Jessica’s were full of outings on the arm of her betrothed, the Earl of Colyton. Frances was fifteen, an awkward age to be in Town, too old to be satisfied with ducks at St James Park and too young to join the social round. But also in town were Antonia Wakefield and Daisy Redepenning, family connections and of much the same age. Frances’s letters described thrilling excursions with one or more governess and more quiet days spent in Haverford or Chirbury House, on theatricals or story writing or painting or some other project that enthralled them for a while and then was put aside.
Eleanor longed to see them, to hear in person about all their doings. Six months of deep mourning was more than enough.
The letter Eleanor had received this morning repeated Charlotte’s invitation. Charlotte and Haverford would not be there. The Prince Regent had asked Haverford to join the British contingent in Paris, and Charlotte was going with him. “Jessica is coming with us,” she wrote. “Rather than send Frances back to Haverford Castle, we wondered if you would consider joining her in London.”
Perhaps it was time. No more wallowing. Eleanor had lost a husband she never wanted. She had lost her role as the wife of one of England’s most powerful men. Even so, she was still Eleanor Haverford. She had built her own reputation and her place within the ton. She might now be the dowager Duchess of Haverford, but nothing else had changed. The connections she had, the power she could wield in Society, still belonged to her.
“I need some cause to work for,” she told the empty room. It was time to return to Society.
(No link, since I’m still writing. But Eleanor’s friendship with James and her beleaguered relationship with her evil husband are in the background of the novels and novella of The Return of the Mountain King. Description and links here. https://judeknightauthor.com/the-children-of-the-mountain-king/)